I picked up a PC World magazine this month, and in it I found a big colorful ad displaying a character that I knew right away was either drawn by Gabe of Penny Arcade, or was a direct rip-off of his art style.

I looked at the picture. Excellent, very evocative of a distinct pair of personalities. The image told a strong story just with a glance.

Nice picture, but is this an ad? Where was the message?

Oh, there it is, words wrapped lovingly around each rich curve and lush swooping angle.

I read the message and wondered aloud, “WTF?”

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one to wonder the same. No, a quick search on the internet showed me that “Penny Arcade ESRB” gets plenty of hits dating from 2006.

Well, I never pretended to be a relevant bear.

Kotaku and Joystiq both had interesting things to say at the time.

I do want to look at the design of the ad, and wonder aloud again, “WTF?”

Let’s take a look at the ad I saw in the magazine, a magazine printed for the 2011 November or December issue of PC World, I might add. It’s still a current ad. Apparently, they’re proud of it. And if you got Gabe to draw your ad, wouldn’t YOU want to show it off?

This is the Penny Arcade ad done for the ESRB called ‘The Andersons”.

Now, long time readers here know I love me some Penny Arcade. Just search, you’ll find Child’s Play drives and all that stuff on my website. And I love the images they did, I do. THis one speaks directly of a gamer and his willing but struggling dad. And it’s sweet, rather than snarky.

It’s the message of this as an advertisement I’m scorning. /scorn.

Riddle me this, Batman. Who is the target audience for ESRB ads in PC World?

Is it the young gamer looking for guidance from a rating on content? 

No. This is PC World magazine, and young gamers aren’t going to be interested in the opinions of anyone other than their peers.

The target audience is, really, slightly out-of-touch parents that know enough about technology to have some grasp of where a clue might be found, cool enough to take in interest in what games their kids play and maybe even play with them, without being so reactionary that they ban all games as ‘The devil’s work”.

This person looks at that ad, sees that image, and the art of Penny Arcade compels you.

You should chant that as if you are a priest, banishing demons from kids stuck playing Sega Saturn while their friends are rocking Xbox 360’s;

“The Art of Penny Arcade Compels You!”

“The Art of Penny Arcade Compels You!”

You zoom in closer, entranced, and your eyes spy the text wrapped around the image.

Then you follow it back until you find the beginning of the sentence, because the bold face type first draws your eye but that’s not where the sentence starts, “Where the hell is the start of this thing? Oh, there it is.”

Not an auspicious beginning.

Then you read this message;

Because the Andersons play games, theres a system in place to make sure they bring home the right ones. This is how that system works; First, Mom and Dad select games using the ratings on the box. Step two, (continued on the other side of the image) everyone gets a controller. Step three, the kids win. This quality time is presented by the ESRB.

I gotta say, that’s just amazing to me, after 5 years that ad is still flying? 

I don’t even want to dissect the message itself, but I have to say one thing.

Step one: Mom and Dad select games using the ratings on the box?

Really? Who out there initiates the game-buying event by going to the store, picking up the box, and selecting which ones to consider based on the ESRB rating?

Are we really supposed to be that clueless?

No. No, you either heard one was good, or you were asked by your kid to buy the game.

Or, you’re trying to get a gift for someone else’s kids and have no bloody idea if Wonder Pets Save The Amazon Rainforest has nudity or mature language.

I’m saying, your kid knows if they want to try it or not. You’re not flying completely blind, unless you are Grandma, in which case you don’t care who the ESRB is, you’re gonna do what they tell ya.

Your kid wants to play a game. They ask you to buy it for them, ’cause you’ve got the cash. Or the game has an ESRB rating that prevents the clerk from selling to your kids age bracket. Either way, you are the gateway to video game happiness.

You are entering this scenario as the parent, the responsible adult, asked to make an informed decision as to whether this game is appropriate for your children based on your own personal standards.

Pop quiz, hot shot. You know nothing of this game.  Your smartphone has no reception, so you can’t look up reviews on your favorite gaming sites like an intelligent adult.

What do you do? What do you do?

You could say no, it’s always a viable alternative.

You could say yes, hoping for the best.

You could just buy it, play it yourself, and once you beat it decide if it’s acceptable for your kids.

Or, and this is a wild thought, you could check out the ESRB rating to get details on what you can expect to see in the game. 

So, think about it. Did their message give you enough info to understand what they’re all about without actively looking at the back of a game box?

I don’t think so. When viewed without preconceived ideas of what the ESRB is, it came across to me a little threatening. If viewed a certain way, it almost seems to make a case that the ESRB wants to decide what your choices should be, incidentally giving them great power over game designers and publishers. “Do what we say, or we will bury your game with a bad rating, and parents won’t buy it.”

To my way of thinking, an advertisement should answer the following questions;

Who are you, what do you do, and why should I care/buy your product or service?

can we do any better?

I think we can. In a millisecond.

Just a thought, but how about this?

“ESRB: we play the games your kids want to play so you don’t have to.”

Who are you? The ESRB. What do you do? You play all the games and know what is in them. Why do I even care that you exist? Because with an ESRB rating on a box I can make an informed decision on the fly without having to play the game myself first.

I can just say, “Nope! The ratings on the box says this one has bad language and visceral decapitations, and I hate bad language. Hey Marge, what does visceral mean? Is that like my goddamn Crown Royal? Is there booze in this f’ing game?”

I love the image, but it takes more than great art to get your point across, and if you’re not clearly articulating your point with your ad, why the bloody heck are you running it in the first place?

11 Responses to “Fun with Advertising, Part the Second”
  1. Big Heals says:

    The goal of the ESRB isn’t effectiveness, it’s keeping “family” advocates from demanding government censorship. You can be pretty sure that the ESRB never wants parents to stop buying the games their kids want.

    • bigbearbutt says:

      But, and this is the but, I’m not attacking the ESRB, I’m having fun looking at the effectiveness of the ad.

      Remember, we’re not assuming the person reading the ad already knows all about the ESRB, what they do, what they stand for, how responsible or valuable they are.

      We’re looking at what we, as a total stranger, learn about the ESRB from their awareness ad.

      I find it interesting that the ESRb has such vocal defenders, that the hint of criticism is met so strongly. That says good things for the ESRB, but doesn’t do anything to get the word out to new folks at all.

  2. Riegnman says:

    I think that maybe you’re being a little to critical of the wording. Especially on the first part. Regardless of who “initiates” the game-buying experience, I “select” the game as a parent. Not only based on the ESRB rating which, imo, is a little soft where choosing games for my 7-year-old is concerned but I also use other tools. I use plugged in online as a resource also. Their site is very thorough when reviewing movies and games. So thorough, in fact, that you can usually see how many instances of a certain curse word are used in a certain movie. That site is run by Focus on the Family, though, so I know that it’s not for everyone. Some people will shun the site just for the fact of who runs it alone and that’s fine. I use it as a tool to make an informed decision.
    There are no “impulse buys” when it comes to games or movies at my house if I am not familiar with the game or movie in question.
    I must admit that the ESRB is not as lax as the movie rating system. Apparently, they don’t consider breasts or butts nudity any more.
    Just as an FYI:
    In several states if not all, it is ILLEGAL for an adult to provide or display anything with nudity to a minor. So those that are allowing their children to watch movies with even “a little nudity” are quite possibly committing a crime. Meh, take it for what it is. I know that it’s not really enforced usually in VA but I do know that if you are investigated by CPS for some reason and the investigators find games or movies with nudity or content “inappropriate for children” then that will constitute neglect or abuse and will be used against you (I work with the foster care and CPS). We have actually had kids in our care that were removed from the home because the parents were allowing the children to have and view content deemed inappropriate.
    In most of those cases that I’m aware of that includes animated or CG nudity as well. That’s why these convenience stores all have black bars across their porno mags. They are required to do so to comply with the law.

    TL;DR: I am the one that SELECTS the games in my home and will use the ESRB rating in conjuction with other methods to determine what is appropriate.

  3. Reliquary says:

    The issue I see with the ESRB is that it was created to prohibit the purchase of games by minors. Similar to the Explicit Lyrics and PG-13, R ratings on movies. The problem is that stores don’t enforce the ratings. While they should and are subject to fines, they usually don’t care and the individuals selling the games are under 18 anyways. When I purchased my MW3 at Best Buy the kid at the register was as content as could be to just click away the age pop-up on his register for a shopper that could be no older than 14. So this really means its up the parents to look at the games their kids have purchased and see if any have a rating they don’t like. I don’t see it as a tool for parents to use to pick out games, like you said most kids will tell their parents what they want ahead of time, and therefore it would be used not a starting point but a final factor in buying it.

  4. Syl says:

    f’ing ?

    Come on, dear bear butt; with all the WTFs going on on your page and a formidable post on being true to yourself as a blogger some while back, surely you can write “fucking” when you mean to say “fucking” and everyone’s gonna read “fucking” anyway?

    ;)

    • bigbearbutt says:

      Well, implied f’ing is one thing, explicitly typing it and reading it really is offensive to some foloks, including some very good Mormon friends of mine who occasionally check out my blog.

      I don’t find it too limiting to my personal expression to use the contraction, and really what I should do is come up with some suitable alternatives that have the same emotional feeling behind them without the overt social stigma. That I haven’t done so is more a sign of my recent laziness as a writer. If I were on top of my game, instead of using words like that I’d be coming up with funny alternatives.

      • bigbearbutt says:

        I guess to be clearer about where I come in on this, I still feel that we’re all having a conversation, but on the blog it’s NEVER private, it is always in polite company.

        When I visit my Mormon friends in their home, or invite them to come into my home (as this blog essentially is), out of respect for their beliefs and feelings I refrain from using the hard language in their presence that I know would hurt them.

        How I talk on the blog is, generally, how I would talk in front of all of my friends in polite company. I write how I think, and I think the way I’d speak aloud.

        When you do see me swear, that is me being rude, and I shouldn’t. In the Marines, my drill instructors taught me loud and clear that you could be extremely expressive without havcing to resort to using ‘dirty’ words, if you actually have an imagination and a grasp of language.

        That is why I always feel that if I have sworn on the blog, I’ve failed. I should have taken the time to come up with something just as expressive, but not as offensive, and funny to boot.

        • Syl says:

          I see what you mean, but I still think a lot of stuff is being mixed up in your reasoning or contradictory.
          personally, I respect language pragmatics and understanding words in the spirit they were meant in; I’d also say if somebody feels offended (personally? really?) just because you said ‘fucking funny’ or similar, they’ve lost touch with reality. but sure, you shouldn’t use swearwords excessively to backup a (maybe weak) argument, but likewise a well-placed ‘fuck’ can say more than a hundred, silly replacement words. :D

          Swearing is human, it’s not a mortal sin, right? we all do it sometimes, we certainly all think it – it’s phony to get all huffy and puffy just because someone then says it too, in my personal opinion. in general I have a big issue with holier-than-thou people who think they’re saints for never speaking their mind (which can be seen as dishonest?). if at all, it’s our actions that define us – and then there’s a thing called sense of humor. nobody is discriminated or hurt by ‘fucking funny’ ‘shit’ etc…the odd swearword makes you a human being I care to read, rather than some detached preacher figure whose blog I would never frequent. I care for your texts because you are authentic.

          Anyway, this was just an aside. opinions and cultures differ, call me very European. ;) I certainly didn’t mean to attack you here, I was just rather surprised at the self-censorship. I still think that for the case of asterixes*** and effing and “, which was my main point, anyone using them as replacement is lying to himself (I have certainly detected myself in this too in the past) and the rest. it’s where political correctness becomes bizarre. if you write f’ing it means fucking and is being read as fucking, there is zero difference. you intended to say ‘fuck’ – so, then say it. if your friends get offended by the idea of using this word, then f’ing surely offends them too. you can of course choose not to write it at all, at least then you come across as consequent.
          I just wanted to let you know that for me personally, the BBB does not need to hide behind contractions and that as a smart and informed reader, I will understand his words in the spirit they were written (and also chuckle when he’s losing his temper) in an otherwise and still no-less formidable article. :)

          Yours truly, using the odd but never superfluous swearword – Syl ^^

          • Riegnman says:

            “in general I have a big issue with holier-than-thou people who think they’re saints for never speaking their mind (which can be seen as dishonest?). ”

            Just one thing to say here:

            You do realize that when people lose that “filter” between what goes on in their head and what goes on in RL that’s considered psychosis, right?

            There have been lots of people that I would love to smack right in the mouth but I refrained from doing so because it wasn’t the “right” thing to do. On a slighter note, there have been plenty of people that I would love to just come out and say, “are you an idiot?”, but have refrained because it wasn’t the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s not the right thing to do to speak your mind. You take into account, as BBB has put it, the company in which you are placed. If I’m on the job, I’m expected to not swear in front of a client. Why? Because it’s considered crass. You do, of course, have the right to use such words in front of the client but if they complain then you’re gonna be standing in line for some cheese. . .

            I fully understand where you’re coming from on this and the line of thought by which you reach it, but just want the other side of the coin to be seen.

            It’s funny that someone would have to defend their choice to be considerate of others with whom they choose to share company, though.

  5. Syl says:

    If somebody feels offended, that’s not the end of a discussion; it’s your right to question standards there, especially if they strike you as double. I know, ‘you offended somebody’ is a popular strategy to shut the critic up – it doesn’t work on me. I can also, as an intelligent human being with contextual understanding, differentiate very well between somebody who swears all the time or “always says what he is thinking”, and an odd cussword used on a page like this one. you know, “degrees” – it’s not always the time&place to say what you think maybe, likewise sometimes IT IS completely fine. :)

    somebody’s personal blog doesn’t strike me as a place where he shouldn’t be allowed to express his views without using silly contractions (and silly they are – you should really question their use); but I fully respect BBB’s choice to censor himself in favor of friends. it’s his choice, what I questioned is whether HOW he does it is particularly effective. so, thanks for understanding the difference. also, this is not an attack-defense discussion in the least, I think a little higher of the host than you might realize. I’m also kinda taking his side, more than he does himself, he he…

    It’s an interesting debate for me, also in light of other recent articles out there (for ex. on EA’s recent forum policies for CoD3).

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